Investigators: Smartphone Secrets - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Smartphone Secrets

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MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) -

What are you planning to do with the old one before you sell it or toss it in the recycle bin?

Removing personal data is the smart thing to do -- you wouldn't want passwords and other secrets falling into the wrong hands.

I have a phone and with a feature on it to delete and erase everything. If I do that, is everything really gone?

Well...sometimes.

Here's where you might want to take a deep breath. Delete doesn't always mean delete.

"All of that data may be subject to recovery," said Mark Lanterman of Computer Forensic Services.

Lanterman is a whiz at drilling into phones and striking pay dirt. Police, the FBI and corporations all come to him when they need a phone mined for evidence.

"They're inadvertently keeping a snitch in their pocket," Lanterman said of smart phone users.

It's unnerving, even scary, to see how much of your life story can stay on your phone after you thought it was wiped clean.

Six volunteers handed over their old smart phones to the FOX 9 Investigators, which we brought to Lanterman's lab. It didn't take his forensic experts long to find lots of interesting stuff: email passwords, Twitter information, Facebook credentials and even access to a voicemail account.

Downright alarming.

One of our test phones is from a friend of a FOX 9 employee. It was erased before we got our hands on it. I've never met the owner and know nothing about him -- not even his name.

Lanterman is able to scrape together some clues that will help us learn more about our mystery phone donor.

"I have two photographs taken in this house in the southwest corner of the house," he said.

He recovers pictures that had been deleted, leading us to a house in the north metro. Thanks to his phone, I feel like I already know my way around. I can tell him the style of his kitchen sink, the color of the bathroom tile and even the descriptions of his wife and two children.

I know all of this because we have videos. We also have photos which have GPS locators embedded in them.

By plugging the coordinates recovered from his phone into Google Earth, we now have an image of where he lives.

This was all on a phone that had been wiped clean. The good news is it took a computer forensics expert to mine all that data from the phone.

The bad news...

"Someone can learn, someone can research how to do what we did," Lanterman said.

Of the six phones Lanterman drilled into for us, three had some data he could recover. He says you just never know by make or model which ones will truly delete information and which ones won't.

"My advice would be not to donate and not to sell mobile devices," Lanterman said.

Do you really need to resort to destroying your old phone for security?

Our computer forensics expert says yes. Others would disagree, saying you can trust the erase function on your phone and you shouldn't worry about selling or recycling it.

In the end you get to make the call. Whatever makes you comfortable.

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